Streaming-service subscribers–and their friends and families–got a jolt this summer. A West Coast appeals court upheld the conviction of a man who used a former colleague’s log-in to access databases at his previous employer without its knowledge or permission. Soon news stories reported that the decision could also apply to subscribers who share, say, their Netflix passwords–which would make roughly half of all streaming-service subscribers guilty of a federal crime.
Don’t panic. “The average consumer has nothing to worry about,” says Mark Grossman, a lawyer who specializes in technology law. “You’re more likely to win the lottery than face legal consequences.”
Account sharing for online streaming services, such as Amazon, HBO, Hulu and Netflix, cost the industry $500 million in revenues in 2015, according to a study by research firm Parks Associates. But the major providers have been slow to curb the practice, although some have made changes to control the number of devices that can be used for a single account or the number of videos users can stream at the same time.
Your provider’s sharing policy may be ambiguous. For example, most companies use the word household without defining it, leaving users to guess whether their household includes, say, a kid who is away at college or Grandma who lives in the apartment downstairs–not to mention a group of un-related roommates. That ambiguity leaves the door open for companies to change their currently lax policies and crack down on account sharing. “In the unlikely event that a company wants to go after you for password sharing,” says Grossman, “they’ll send you a cease-and-desist letter, instructing you to stop what you’re doing.” And as long as you obey the rules after receiving the notice, you should be in the clear. To make it easier to understand which accounts you can share and to what extent, we’ve studied the user agreements for some of the most popular streaming services.
Cost: $99 per year
Free trial: 30 days
Shared-account policy: Up to two adults and four children living in the same household. No more than two videos can be streamed at the same time.
Details: A little more than a year ago, Amazon shortened the leash for Prime members who had eagerly shared their benefits with as many as four other adults. If you sign up now, you’ll still pay the same price for Prime, but you’ll need to limit sharing to household members, who can’t view more than two videos on separate devices at the same time. (Amazon Student Prime members and invited guests of other Prime members can’t share their benefits.) Each adult gets his or her own log-in, and kids can use their own subaccounts to stream movies. Billing information for both adults on an account is shared–including access to credit and debit cards–allowing either to buy movies, books or anything else on Amazon. If you added people to your Prime account before Amazon changed the rules, they won’t be booted from the account unless you manually remove them.
Cost: $15 a month
Free trial: One month
Shared-account policy: Subscription may be shared with members of your household, who can log in and stream content at the same time.
Details: Game of Thrones fans who rely on HBO’s streaming service to get their fix will find its sharing policy to be lenient–and vague. As with other streaming services, you can sign in to your account from any device, share the subscription with members of your household and watch videos at the same time as others who are using your account.
Caveat: According to the FAQs on its site, HBO reserves the right to lock out simultaneous users “for security reasons,” although it doesn’t specify the number of users who are allowed to stream content at the same time.
Cost: $8 a month with ads; $12 a month to stream commercial-free
Free trial: One week
Shared-account policy: Members of the same household can share a single account and log in from any device, but they can stream only one video at a time.
Details: Hulu’s approach may put a damper on how much you may be willing to share your password, even within your immediate household. The arrangement works best for families who enjoy the same shows and watch them together–or perhaps those with varying interests but different TV-viewing schedules.
Cost: $8 to $12 a month
Free trial: One month
Shared-account policy: Create up to five individual profiles for people in your household, and stream one, two or four movies or shows at the same time, depending on your plan.
Details: Netflix has embraced account sharing more than most of its competitors–up to a point. “We love people sharing Netflix,” said Reed Hastings, the company’s CEO, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. “As kids move on in their life, we see them separately subscribe,” he said. The basic $8-a-month package allows you to access Netflix’s video trove on a single device at any given time. Subscribers who want to share the wealth may do so, if they pay a little more. For $10 a month, you may stream content on up to two screens; for $12 a month, you may have up to four screens streaming at the same time. Each person can have his or her own profile–a boon for, say, spouses who are tired of their partner’s preferences slanting their suggested films, or parents tired of kids’ movies taking over their feed. There’s no ambiguity about what happens if you exceed the number of users who may stream concurrently: You will simply be refused access.